Charlie’s eyes had been darting toward her for the past fifteen stops. He was angry about dozing but he’d been too tired to resist the rain’s rhythmic tapping on the roof of the bus.
Acrid fumes of exhaust had awakened him before the dream had returned; and she sat perched behind him still, two seats over, a neatly-laced boot protruding into the aisle.
Her hair had been in a loose braid when she’d boarded the bus but several strands had slipped out, grazing the curve of her ear. She tilted her head and a pale wisp fell away from her face gifting Charlie with a view of her eyes.
Blue as he knew they’d be. Blue and beautiful.
She looked to be about his age – sixteen – but as she gazed out the dirt-streaked window, the crooked smile that played across her lips suggested she felt more comfortable in her skin than Charlie did in his.
He pushed a tangle of black curls off his forehead, compared his rumpled jeans and sweatshirt to the drape of her skirt, to her bag with precise stitching at each seam.
Sliding his own tattered backpack from beneath his seat, Charlie fumbled for the folded portrait he’d been poring over for weeks. He smoothed the paper across his lap and looked at the picture he’d drawn after the third night.
His rendering of a girl with eyes like the sky.
He glanced at his watch and knew they’d reach her destination soon. The patter of rain had become an urgent plea:
save her save her save her.
The bus slowed in a squeal of brakes that raised goose bumps on his arms. He stuffed the drawing back into his pack then his eyes sought her again. He watched as she gathered herself, expectant, preparing to stand.
Where did you come from? he wondered. Where are you headed? He could scarcely bring himself to formulate the third question:
Can I go, too?
The doors of the bus yawned open with a hiss that snapped Charlie from his reverie.
He leaped for the exit ahead of her, bounding down the steps onto the slick pavement. She followed – not a minute behind – holding her bag overhead in a futile attempt to stave off the relentless rain.
Charlie knew her movements by heart, had rehearsed them nightly in his dreams. His muscles tensed as she spotted an awning across the street protecting a patch of concrete untouched by the rain.
“She wants to be dry,” Charlie muttered. “She thinks it’s safe.”
In his dreams, he never reached her in time. But today would be different. Today he was awake. As she edged forward to dash across the street, he lunged, grateful for the bag’s strap looped under her arm.
Seizing the length of leather, he pulled with a determination gleaned from a month’s worth of questions, a lifetime of believing he was “only.”
As she fell backward into his expectant arms, Charlie inhaled the scent. Nutmeg? Cinnamon?
In his dreams, he’d never gotten this close, never breathed her in. But he had always heard the engine and he tightened his hold on her as the roar grew louder.
He knew the car would be blue even before it tore past them, assaulting the storm-soaked asphalt. This time, however, she wasn’t in its path, struck down while he slept miles away.
The girl shivered against him before she spoke.
“So it’s you then, is it?”
Her words dripped like butter and Charlie fought the urge to lick his lips.
“Wait here,” he said, releasing her from his grip. He ran to his backpack, anxious to show her his drawing. He wanted to explain to her what he understood, ask her about what he didn’t. He needed someone to talk to. And at last, he’d found her.
Charlie’s hands trembled as he searched his cavernous pack once, twice. “It has to be here.” Yet every compartment was as empty as the next.
Loneliness, liquid and familiar, seeped through his bones until he felt he would wash away. Instead, he zipped each section then unfolded himself from his crouch, inch by inch to face the truth.
He knew before he looked that she, like his drawing, would be gone. Without the picture Charlie had nothing to carry and he abandoned his useless backpack on the wet ground.
Behind him, the bus sputtered to life, easing away from the curb where Charlie stood. He remained frozen while the wheezing vehicle turned the corner and disappeared. Charlie scanned the deserted road, absorbing his renewed isolation.
Above him came the desolate cry of a bird announcing its flight. He watched the wings in their solitary arc across the treetops. It was then that he realized the rain had finally stopped.
So Charlie tucked himself deeper into the hood of his sodden sweatshirt and trudged down the sidewalk alone as the clouds parted and the sky turned blue.
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